Over the course of the year, we pay tribute to 35 living Vanguards and 12 departed heroes. This month’s featured Vanguard is Tonya Antle of Organic Produce Network.
Originally printed in the September 2021 issue of Produce Business.
The broadcasting industry’s loss is the produce industry’s gain. In fact, a colleague calls Tonya Antle, who co-founded and is CEO of the Monterey, CA-based Organic Produce Network (OPN), the “mother of organic produce.” Over a 40-year career, Antle has worked to take organically grown fruits and vegetables from a purchase principally sought out by Birkenstock-clad shoppers to a routine buy by everyone from millennials to mainstream boomers, with availability that’s moved from ‘health food’ stores to mass market retailers nationwide. Introducing accessible and affordable organic produce to the masses wasn’t an easy field to cultivate. It’s one that cut across the grain of the industry norms for many years, but in the end, Antle’s true trailblazing life’s work has changed the organic fresh produce industry forever.
“Tonya could clearly be called the ‘mother of organic produce’,” says Tom Stenzel, president and CEO of the United Fresh Produce Association, in Washington, D.C. “I don’t know of anyone more influential in bringing organic produce from a niche offering to the mainstream produce aisle in supermarkets across the country. When I first met Tonya several decades ago, she was almost a lone advocate for organics at Pavich Family Farms. But she was relentless. Over the years, she brought organics to every retail operator and showed them how this could be a real money-maker while meeting consumer demand. From those early days to more recently helping launch the OPN, Tonya has been an inspirational leader.”
A PRODUCE-DESTINED CAREER
Antle grew up on her own family’s table grape and citrus farm in Delano, CA. She fast learned from her early childhood days that Saturdays were not about cartoons and cornflakes, but rather a day for tractor driving and irrigating with her sister and two brothers in the family grape vineyards and alfalfa fields. Years later, Antle pursued a Bachelor of Arts degree in communications at the University of California, Irvine, with the dream of becoming the next Barbara Walters. She anchored a college TV show called ‘The UC Eye Show’, broadcast locally in Orange County, and landed an internship at ABC News in Hollywood, which ultimately led to a job offer at KFSN, Channel 30, in Fresno. It was a plum position, but she never started the broadcast job. Instead, in 1981, Antle went to work for specialty produce company, Frieda’s, in Los Alamitos, CA.
“I am a farmer’s granddaughter, daughter and wife. Growing up steeped in the romance, heartbreak, and triumphs of the produce industry, my heart is rooted in this business. I probably never really stood a chance of leaving it behind. And I am grateful I didn’t,” says Antle.
With mentors like Frieda and Karen Caplan, Antle says that Frieda’s was an incredible place to cut her teeth in produce sales. The most important take-away, and one that would serve her well ahead as she blazed the organic field, was how to build a strong case for something niche or out of the ordinary. Organic, like kiwi some two decades before, was then just such an animal.
Though now a produce professional, it was Antle’s personal life that catapulted her career so strongly into organics. As a young mother, she’d pack up her two children each month and drive from the southern San Joaquin Valley to Los Angeles to stock up on organic foods at a natural foods store called Mrs. Gooch’s (now owned by Whole Foods). The drive time inspired Antle’s light bulb thought: “I knew that if I was willing to drive two hours to buy organic food, there were surely a lot of other mothers who felt the same way.”
ORGANIC AS A CAREER PASSION
After Frieda’s, Antle worked at Pavich Family Farms where her brother-in-law led the charge in converting table grape acreage to organic. Antle, in turn, was the first person to sell a straight truckload of organic produce to a conventional retailer, Stop ‘n’ Shop in Boston, MA, in the late 80s. Harold Alston, the chain’s vice president of produce sales and procurements at the time contacted Antle due to his fear of losing shoppers to natural foods store, Bread and Circus.
Antle leveraged the success of her organic produce sales to this innovative New England chain to attain buy-in from other big retailers. As a result, Alston, as well as Costco’s Frank Padilla, Vons’ Dick Spezzano, Kroger’s Reggie Griffin and Keith Johnson, HEB’s Hugh Topper and Walmart’s Ron McCormick became customers as well as mentors in helping Antle to learn, develop and grow the mass market organic segment.
Antle left Pavich and found what she calls the perfect new home at San Juan Bautista-based Earthbound Farm. As the vice president of organic sales – the first female vice president of the company and one of the first in the produce industry – she forged ahead in the pursuit of making organic produce less expensive and more available.
“Tonya was a driving force for Earthbound gaining distribution in supermarkets for organic produce. Her unique combination of being a female executive, passionate organic advocate, and the core consumer allowed her to communicate our core mission to supermarket executives. We certainly couldn’t have had the same level of success that we all achieved at Earthbound without her,” says Drew Goldman, co-founder of Earthbound Farm.
Antle’s move to Earthbound in 1998 coincided with the industry in the process of rulemaking for the National Organic Program standards, a result of the Organic Foods Production Act of 1990. At that time, there was no federal standard for organic and it limited large, multi-state retailers. For example, if there were 30-plus certification agencies, each with slightly different standards, it would be difficult for produce buyers and consumers alike to know exactly what any given version of organic meant. The USDA organic standards became law in 2002, which accelerated the growth of organic.
“My entire career was forged against the norm. From being a woman in produce to the whole process of convincing retail produce buyers to take a chance on organic. I believe what Jonathan Swift said: ‘Vision is the art of seeing things invisible.’ This was the guiding principle of the organic pioneers, and I am proud to be considered among them,” she says.
BRIGHT FUTURE FOR OTHERS
After retiring from Earthbound Farm, Antle took time to enjoy life and travel with her late husband, Rick Antle, president and CEO of Tanimura & Antle, in Spreckels, CA. It was during these years she joined the Ag Business Department at Cal Poly, San Luis Obispo as an Adjunct Professor in Fresh Fruit and Vegetable marketing and has also served the university as a member of the President’s Council. She also guest lectured at Hartnell Junior College’s Ag Business Department and California State University Monterey Bay’s School of Business.
“While Tonya and Rick found one another later in life, they also made a special pair. That’s why United Fresh was thrilled to honor both with our Lifetime Achievement Award in 2016. Both made individual contributions to our industry’s success, and I only wish that partnership could have lasted longer to see what they would do next,” says Stenzel.
Antle was honored in 2017 as the Ag Against Hunger Agricultural Women of the Year by the Salinas, CA-based Grower-Shipper Foundation Association, and in 2003 was the recipient of United’s Women in Produce Achievement Award.
Looking ahead, she says, “I am incredibly gratified to see so much young talent coming into our industry. I am proud to be a teacher and mentor to so many of these people. The future looks exciting for fresh produce in general and organic specifically.”